Photos & Review: New Disney Merriest Nites Christmas Party

We attended the new Merriest Nites at Disneyland. This special event promises “6 parties in 1” and features rare character greetings, “A Christmas Fantasy” parade, lower wait times for popular rides, and more. In this review, we’ll share party photos, what we accomplished, how it could improve, and whether it’s worth the money.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, check out our Guide to Disney Merriest Nites Christmas Party at Disneyland. I’ve already updated that with time-saving strategy for meeting rare characters, getting a good view for the Muppet Christmas Caroling Coach, and making the most of the event.

In a nutshell, this event is the Christmas counterpart to Mickey’s Halloween Party at Disneyland or Oogie Boogie Bash at Disney California Adventure. This is the first time Disneyland has done a holiday-time hard ticket event, and it was announced in September, suggesting that the $165 to $175 was a last minute decision, and perhaps would have some growing pains during its debut year…

“Growing pains” are exactly what we experienced prior to the start of Disney Merriest Nites Christmas Party. The event takes place from 8 pm until midnight, but admission to Disneyland with the event tickets is allowed as early as 5 pm. Rather than getting our lanyards and wristbands right at the start of the pre-party mix-in, we waited until around 6 pm.

We were already in Disneyland and knew the lines outside the turnstiles stretched back to DCA, so we figured the smart option was going to Star Wars Launch Bay in Tomorrowland to check into the event. As it turned out, we would’ve been better off leaving the park and going to the turnstiles, as those lines were moving faster. We ended up waiting 67 minutes to get our wristbands.

This was frustrating, but it was compounded by the complete lack of guest recovery. There were a lot of Cast Members in the building, but only 4 stations printing tickets and giving out wristbands. I can understand that more scanners can’t be manufactured out of thin air, so it’s going to be slow-going. But there was no effort to improve the experience, explain the wait, or mitigate the frustration.

The only thing we were told regarding this delay was a few instances of “sorry, it’s our first night!” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard this over the years from Disney, and my (mental) response is always: “Okay? This event wasn’t discounted or presented with an asterisk warning of first night screw-ups.” Of course, I’d never say this to a Cast Member as it’s not their individual fault and they probably have plenty of guests taking out frustrations on them. My disappointment lies with the organization as a whole, and management who puts frontline Cast Members in that position.

As with Disney IT, there’s a certain unstated arrogance in it being acceptable for day one to have so many problems time and time again. Little apparent effort is made to remedy this–the consumer is just expected to absorb it, despite the high price points. Despite its long-term reputation, Disney now offers poor customer service relative to similarly-priced hospitality industry counterparts, so I really shouldn’t be surprised. It’s just disappointing that Disney is no longer the gold standard.

Despite the night starting out on a sour note, it was smooth sailing from there. I’m not going to do a step-by-step recap of the event, in large part because a lot of our evening was simply spent wandering around an uncrowded Disneyland, soaking up the seasonal atmosphere and enjoying the entertainment, live musicians, and characters.

Although it’s billed as “six parties in one celebration,” that’s definitely marketing. I figured that would be the case, but part of me wondered whether the entertainment in each land would be somewhat consolidated or have a cohesive feel. It did not, which is entirely fine. Spreading out the offerings imbued the whole park with a festive atmosphere, and also likely helped with congestion. Just worth mentioning for anyone actually expecting 6 distinct parties–this is not that.

Main Street is the unequivocal winner of the Merriest Nites “parties,” which is unsurprising since it’s always the highlight of Christmas at Disneyland. With the Muppets Christmas Caroling Coach, the incredible characters from Mickey’s Christmas Carol, beautiful sounds of the Handbell Carolers, “A Christmas Fantasy” parade, there was always something happening on Main Street.

On top of that, it had pitch-perfect festive atmosphere, with new projections on the building facades in addition to the standard (stunning) Christmas tree and decorations, background music, and more. Merriest Nites essentially took the normal holiday ambiance of Main Street and dialed it up to 11, while reducing the crowds to a 1. We ended up spending over half of Merriest Nites on Main Street, and have zero regrets about that.

Part of the reason we spent so much time on Main Street was to catch the Mickey’s Christmas Carol characters. Minnie and Mickey Mouse were wearing new costumes as Emily and Bob Cratchit, and they rotated with Ebenezer Scrooge and Goofy Marley (one of my all-time favorite character costumes, ever).

We didn’t wait too long for any of them, strategically lining up before Merriest Nites started and again as the parade ended. I suspect that will change for subsequent Disney Merriest Nites Christmas Parties as word gets out about these new looks and demand increases. Disneyland fans love rare characters.

Another thing we appreciated about Main Street in particular was the low crowds. It’s been a while since we’ve experienced an evening at Disneyland during the Christmas season that Main Street was this quiet–probably dating back a rainy night or particularly cold evening several years ago.

We came to appreciate this even more after Merriest Nites, as all of our subsequent evenings in Disneyland have been bonkers on Main Street. Even leaving last night (random non-holiday weeknight), the front of the park was busier at 12:30 am than throughout this special event.

Along with low crowds, wait times for attractions were short or non-existent.

We didn’t do any attractions–wanting instead to focus on entertainment–but pretty much everything appeared to be a walk-on or close to it. We heard from some guests who have private ride vehicles on Indiana Jones Adventure.

More significant to us was that there was live entertainment all over the park.

While Disneyland has largely gotten back to normal (save for the big exception of dining) far faster than Walt Disney World, atmospheric musical acts are one exception to that. This Christmas party took the normal slate of entertainment and further enhanced it. These musicians, dance parties, and character greetings gave the park a tremendous festive energy.

With all of that said, it’s impossible to review the event without discussing the precedent being set by Disney Merriest Nites. Although it’s been rumored for years, this is the first time Disneyland has done a hard ticket Christmas party. In the past, the reluctance was due to holiday season crowds and the ability of DCA to absorb them. That’s why Merriest Nites is only a few evenings, on dates that are projected to be among the least busy of the holiday season.

However, once Disneyland gets a taste of the hard ticket event revenue for Christmas, there’s likely no putting the genie back in the bottle. A handful of dates will become a dozen next year, and things will snowball from there. A few years from now, we’ll be looking back to the “old days” when a Christmas parade and fireworks were included with regular admission at Disneyland.

I’m acutely aware of that possibility, and don’t think it’s a far-fetched slippery slope scenario. Just ask anyone who did Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party a decade ago to compare it to Disney Very Merriest After Hours. However, I’m also not going to cast aspersions on this year’s Disney Merriest Nites Christmas Party because it could morph into something undesirable or that negatively impacts the normal guest experience years from now.

We’ll cross that bridge if we get to it. I really hope we don’t, and Disneyland fans continue to hold the California parks to a higher standard. It’s entirely possible that Disneyland Resort will continue to strike the appropriate balance of solid day guest offerings and enhanced special event one, as is the case with Halloween.

Speaking of which, let’s turn to how Disney Merriest Nites Christmas Party compares to its counterparts in Florida, as well as Oogie Boogie Bash in California. Although the three of those are very different events from one another, the commonality is that they all have major entertainment productions that are unique to the parties.

Whether it be parades, stage shows, fireworks, interactive walk-through experiences, or World of Color–there’s something at those events that you cannot see during daily operations. On top of that, there are smaller differences that add up to something special: atmosphere, characters, music, snacks, etc.

Disney Merriest Nites Christmas Party is arguably lacking in this regard. The major entertainment is “A Christmas Fantasy” parade, which has been a holiday staple during regular days at Disneyland since 1995. While opinions are mixed as to whether this parade is a classic or past its prime, it’s certainly nothing new to the vast majority of locals.

With that said, we do appreciate that “A Christmas Fantasy” is presented in its full form. Although Walt Disney World advertised that the full Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade would be shown during Very Merriest After Hours, it’s a significantly abridged version. While we didn’t count the number of performers in “A Christmas Fantasy,” I’d hazard a guess that it’s close to double the number of Magic Kingdom’s parade.

However, “A Christmas Fantasy” parade is only presented once during Merriest Nites. Because of this, there’s not even the case to be made that it can be enjoyed devoid of crowds.

During the Christmas party we attended, Main Street for “A Christmas Fantasy” parade was the only time we experienced noticeable crowding. With that said, parade crowds were still far, far worse on non-party nights during our recent days in Disneyland.

There’s also the Muppets Christmas Caroling Coach, which we called Disney’s holiday highlight. Not to belabor the point, but we absolutely adored this. It made Merriest Nites “worth it” for us as big fans of the Muppets. It’s charming and funny, and the biggest must-do of the event from our perspective.

However, it’s hard to call this a major entertainment offering simply by virtue of its viewing setup. There’s a show stop at the end of Main Street, and if you’re not among the ~200 guests who are able to get a good or decent spot for that, you won’t be able to enjoy the Muppets Christmas Caroling Coach. (Don’t get a spot along the parade route–despite being on wheels, this is a show.) It feels more like a niche offering meant to appeal in a big way to a small subset of guests, or not at all. Which is the Muppets in a nutshell.

Then there are the meet & greets. Another highlight of Merriest Nites for us was seeing the characters in their new costumes for Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Some of the other greeting locations around Disneyland were incredibly well done, offering a mix of rare characters, unique attire, or elaborate backdrops. All very cool and undeniably ambitious.

However, this also doesn’t really scale. Outdoor character meet & greets are low capacity (although the current environment seems to have made them a bit more efficient) and thus cannot sustain an event like this. If they’re too much of a selling point or draw, the lines become prohibitively long. We’d say that Disney Merriest Nites Christmas Party was “perfect” in times of characters, but this is largely because not a ton of other guests were lining up for them.

On balance, I don’t think the first year of Disney Merriest Nites lives up to the high bar set by Oogie Boogie Bash Halloween Party at Disney California Adventure. Currently, we’d say that’s the gold standard for unique holiday hard ticket events at Disney’s domestic parks, with enough of a “value add” via unique entertainment and ambitiousness.

Disney Merriest Nites Christmas Party has flashes of that same greatness, but comes up just a bit short in all 5 of the parties outside of Main Street. If they all were of that caliber, this would be a must-attend event. Perhaps with a bit more planning time and certainty about the real world environment, that can be achieved in its second year (assuming the event occurs again).

For Disney Merriest Nites Christmas Party to be objectively “worth it” for more than just Muppets or Mickey’s Christmas Carol fans, it needs a few enhancements. First, a second showing of “A Christmas Fantasy” parade is a no-brainer to pull some of the crowds away from the first, and make easy viewing an actual benefit.

Second, a stage show that’s unique to the event. Fantasyland Theatre is sitting back there unused, and would be perfect for pulling people deeper into the park and absorbing some crowds. This would be a great selling point since it’s something Disneyland doesn’t already do for Christmas (and given the propensity for fireworks to be cancelled in even a slight breeze).

Finally, a bit more “plussing.” There was already a decent amount of this at the event–the light-up Christmas bulb lanyard, parting gift postcards, and beautifully-designed photo backdrops were all more than just nice touches. These show a level of thoughtfulness and effort that is appreciated, that actual care went into making the evening special.

Nevertheless, more along those lines is needed. An obvious one is complimentary candy cane and cookie stations throughout the park. This is low-hanging fruit (figuratively–we want sweet treats, not actual fruit!) and something Magic Kingdom has done at these events for years. More projections, lighting, decor, etc. would also be nice–anything that reinforces the notion that this is an experience you can’t have during a regular Christmas-time day at Disneyland.

Ultimately, we had a great time during the Disney Merriest Nites Christmas Party at Disneyland. The above attempts at objectively assessing it are more a result of us taking a step back and thinking about the party as opposed to how we felt about it in the moment. During Disney Merriest Nites itself, we had an absolute blast, enjoying the event far more than we did Disney Very Merry After Hours at Magic Kingdom.

In talking to other Disneyland fans, almost no one was as positive about Merriest Nites as us. In fact, some were downright negative–and their bases for that perspective were entirely reasonable. More than anything else, this made us reflect on our rather harsh review of this Christmas party’s counterpart at Walt Disney World. While the high points of the Disneyland event “spoke to us” more on a personal level, the Magic Kingdom lineup is possibly stronger.

Perhaps we’ve become “too close” to the cutbacks and experience erosion in the Florida parks, making us jaded on occasion–something we’ve endeavored to be mindful of and avoid. That’s not the case in the California parks, and a big reason we enjoyed Merriest Nites so much is likely as simple as being overcome with joy at being back in Disneyland at Christmas for the first time in two years.

When it comes down to it, that’s so much of the basis for each individual assessment of these holiday events–their ability to make guests feel special and overcome with the spirit of the season. Disneyland’s did that for us; maybe Walt Disney World’s will for you.

Planning a Southern California vacation? For park admission deals, read Tips for Saving Money on Disneyland Tickets. Learn about on-site and off-site hotels in our Anaheim Hotel Reviews & Rankings. For where to eat, check out our Disneyland Restaurant Reviews. For unique ideas of things that’ll improve your trip, check out What to Pack for Disney. For comprehensive advice, consult our Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide. Finally, for guides beyond Disney, check out our Southern California Itineraries for day trips to Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, and tons of other places!

YOUR THOUGHTS

If you’ve attended the Disney Merriest Nites Christmas Party at Disneyland, do you disagree with my assessment? Do you have tickets for the special event this year? What are you most excited about seeing or doing? If you’re a Walt Disney World fan, is there anything here you hope makes its way to the 2022 Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party? Any questions about strategy, tips, or anything else? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts on these questions, or anything else, in the comments!

14 Responses to “Photos & Review: New Disney Merriest Nites Christmas Party”
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